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How social media can influence high-stakes business decisions

Kim S. Nash | Sept. 30, 2014
Social media is more than just amassing likes. Companies are using advanced social techniques to rehabilitate corporate reputations, uncover ideas for breakthrough products, and figure out what competitors are up to.

"We may have been the first company in the history of advertising to spend millions of dollars showing our product in an unfavorable light," he says.

It takes guts and it takes time. Domino's began its social media rehab campaign in 2010, launching a reformulated pizza recipe at the same time. Bryce in Minnesota suffered his upsetting pizza incident in 2010. For the past several years, the company has deployed social engagement to help change its reputation as a slapdash pizza maker with a bad-tasting product. "We've spent tens of millions of dollars to tell customers we are listening to them, and they didn't think our pizza was very good," Doyle says. "We're listening, reacting to customers, and doing something about it."

As social media gets more powerful, however, some very large companies recognize the dangers. Bad news, misinformation, rumors and comments move faster than some public relations teams. Target, the $73 billion retailer, explains its worries in the "Risk Factors" section of its annual report. That is where the Securities and Exchange Commission requires a company to specify threats it considers significantly harmful.

"While reputations may take decades to build, any negative incidents can quickly erode trust and confidence, particularly if they result in adverse mainstream and social media publicity, governmental investigations or litigation," the company wrote in its annual report in March. After a 2013 security breach compromised 70 million customer records, Target experienced all four of those potentially devastating consequences and admits it doesn't know what the long-term effects may be.

Pfizer, a $52 billion pharmaceutical company that makes drugs for erectile dysfunction, cancer, Alzheimer's disease and other conditions, names social and mobile technologies as well as "blogger outreach" as risks, specifically when legal cases arise and these outlets compound damage to its reputation.

Part of the problem is that few issues online ever really die. Conversation may decrease, but even outdated or disproven accusations get rediscovered and recirculated. McDonald's continues to take hits about "pink slime" processed meat trimmings in its burgers, though the chain stopped using them in 2011. McDonald's calls out social and mobile communications as a risk when activists "promote adverse perceptions" of fast food, the McDonald's brand, its managers and suppliers.

"If you have a controversial product, it's hard to take a step forward [on social media]," says Fidelman, "and it does seem threatening."

Nonetheless, you have to be there.

Pushing the Right Levers
The $84 billion Wells Fargo, which last year was the most profitable bank in the U.S., used to let business units and divisions conduct their own social media activity separately. As a result, a number of different strategies and initiatives ran on a hodgepodge of tools, says Rene Brown, director of social media. The bank then decided to create an enterprisewide social media strategy, to present a more coherent and controlled voice online.

 

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